Director: Joseph Dorman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Regular Ferdy on Films readers will know of my ongoing struggle with my Jewish heritage and identity. An atheist, I nonetheless feel an attachment, if not to my religion, then to the unique cultural background of Ashkenazi Jewry that I have only a glancing knowledge of through my first-generation American parents and relatives. I become impatient with those whose pity for the Ashkenazi Jews who perished in the Holocaust tends to cast Jews as eternal victims. Yet, my awareness of Jewish vulnerability through the centuries is entwined with my own family history—I lost the whole Polish branch of my family in Auschwitz, and my mother used to tell me stories about her “skinny bubbie,” who used to share her childhood bed and scream in her sleep as she warded off the shadows cast by the pogroms she suffered in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe. Try as I might, I have found myself too far removed in time and temperment from the seminal experiences that defined modern Jewry to really make sense of what it means to me to be Jewish.
That changed, swiftly and painfully, as I watched the unlikely documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. I say unlikely because the film’s subject, Sholem Rabinovitz, aka Sholem Aleichem, born and raised in a Jewish shtetl under Tsarist rule, lived from 1859 to mid 1916—definitely not in the sweet spot for a cinematic documentary. That director Joseph Dorman not only decided to go ahead anyway, but also found some strategies to help bring this story alive has resulted in a film that packs an emotional wallop.
Sholem Aleichem is the nom de plume and persona of the most famous Yiddish writer in the world, as well as the person who made writing in Yiddish acceptable. Writing in Yiddish, he said, was meshugeh (crazy). Jewish writers felt that only Hebrew was proper, and Sholem Rabinovitz was an admirer of the great Russian literature of his time, particularly Tolstoy and Turgenev, and aspired to its heights. Yet, Yiddish was the language of his heart and the only suitable way to address his subject matter. Through his voluminous number of short stories and novels, he became the chronicler of shtetl life and ushered in a golden age of Yiddish expression that even won favor in the atheist and anti-Semitic Soviet Union, until Stalin’s paranoia brought it to an abrupt and tragic end in the 1950s.
Even if you have never read a word by Sholem Aleichem, you know his most famous creation—Tevye the Dairyman. This pious character confused by changes to his traditional way of life was the center around which composer Jerry Bock, playwright Joseph Stein, and lyricist Sheldon Harnick built the wildly popular musical Fiddler on the Roof, often using the language of the writer himself to tell the story. Dorman begins his documentary with a clip from the 1971 film of the musical, with Topol dancing down a dirt road singing “Tradition.” I doubt anyone who chooses to see this film needed this prompt about Sholem Aleichem as a figure of wide significance, but Dorman cleverly returns to this film and an earlier Yiddish version from 1939 to show how alterations to the original story reveal how the Jewish community was redefining itself over time.
The life and times of Rabinovitz are recounted with a surprising thoroughness for a 93-minute film. Rabinovitz’s childhood in the Pale was a happy one—his father was prosperous, and Sholem felt confident and accepted as a result. Unfortunately, his father was swindled by a business partner, and the Rabinovitz family lost everything; at age 13, Sholem also lost his mother in a cholera epidemic. His father found a new woman, but afraid to reveal that he had 12 children, he parceled them out to relatives and recalled them to his home slowly during the first year of his second marriage. Sholem’s stepmother seems to have been a shrew, but she was a great source of epithets, which he gathered into a glossary of curses that would serve him well when he became a writer.
As a young man, he was hired to tutor the only daughter of a wealthy Jewish land owner. When the pair fell in love, Sholem was dismissed. He and Olga eloped after Sholem found steady work and settled in Kiev; their financial circumstances became more secure after Olga’s father died and left her his fortune. Nonetheless, Sholem was attracted to the thrills of playing the stock market and ended up losing everything, declaring bankruptcy, and fleeing the country. His mother-in-law agreed to settle his debts so that he could return to Kiev, but she never spoke to him again.
To support his large family, he wrote short stories at the rate of one or two a week for publication in the Yiddish newspapers that spread his fame throughout the world. At the same time, Jews were scapegoated after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, with vicious pogroms taking lives, destroying property, and sending frightened Jews scattering out of the Pale. In 1905, Sholem and his family went into hiding for three days to escape a pogrom in Kiev; he left for the United States with his wife and youngest son soon after, where he was determined to be a successful playwright of the Yiddish theatre. Instead, his plays were scathingly attacked by young Jews who could not relate to his tales of the shtetl, and he left New York, vowing never to return. A peripatetic life in Western Europe would be his lot until he was forced to flee Germany when World War I broke out; he reluctantly had to return to New York, where he died. His funeral was the largest for a private citizen the city—and the country—had ever known, with his coffin wheeled through every Jewish neighborhood in the city.
We get this chronology, but it is filtered through Sholem Aleichem’s writing. Dorman chooses still photos of two nameless Jews to stand in for Sholem Aleichem’s first enduring characters, Menahem-Mendl and Sheineh-Sheindl, as actors narrate bits of the stories he wrote. Menahem-Mendl and Sheineh-Sheindl are a married couple whose outlooks on life are amusingly opposed. Menahem-Mendl is a cockeyed optimist who has left his wife and family back in the shtetl to make his fortune in the big city. Loaded with enthusiasm, he writes of one great business venture after another, rarely mentioning that they never pan out, while his wife’s letters are filled with skepticism and scolding even as she tries to prop him up in his darkest hours. It’s clear that the couple has more than a few parallels with Sholem and Olga, but they face their hardships with the kind of humor that forms the subtitle of Dorman’s documentary.
The commentary about Tevye zeroes in on the changing attitudes to marriage among modern Jews. Tevye acquiesces to his first daughter Tzeitel’s rejection of the husband he has chosen for her so that she can marry for love. He speaks constantly of how unfair it is that some people can be rich simply because of who they are or what they are (Russian) while he has to slave to eke out a living. His second daughter Hodel takes his harmless complaints seriously and runs off with a Marxist, which stands as a lesson that children will listen to their parents but may act in ways their parents never intended. Third daughter Chava’s break from tradition is too much for Tevye. When she marries a Russian and must, by law, convert to Christianity, Tevye sits shiva for her and refuses to speak with her again. Interestingly, the 1939 film Tevya shows her Russian suitor to be a fine young man, and the 1971 film actually has Tevye break his silence to say “And may God be with you” to the couple as the entire town prepares to leave the Pale. The changes in this story show the gradual acceptance of intermarriage, and underlines the rapid transformation of the Ashkenazi Jewish community in trying to adapt to new countries and customs.
The most poignant parts of this film are also the most personal for me. Dorman makes use of still photos of Jews killed by the pogroms that are perhaps more shocking than any from the Holocaust—bodies laid out side by side include small children and even a couple of infants. “Tales of a Thousand and One Nights,” called a precursor to Holocaust literature, communicates the horrors of the pogroms suffered by its main character, who is on board a refugee ship in the North Sea with the character Sholem Aleichem as they try to find safety in the United States. These pogroms are the reason I was born an American and one of the reasons that the way of life my grandparents and great-grandparents knew was extinguished. And that is the second poignant part of the film, the realization by Jews who left the Pale and adopted different ways of life for themselves and their children that they were now the only link to a murdered way of life. If shtetl values and traditions were to be preserved, these Jews would have to take up the mantle. Sadly, even Sholem Rabinovitz’s children grew up speaking and reading Russian, with no knowledge of lowly Yiddish. This universal language of Jewry, which my parents always called “Jewish” (a much better name for it), is struggling for survival.
Dorman used what little film exists of shtetl life and photos to illustrate both Sholem’s life and his stories. He offers a vocal track of Sholem reading from one of his stories while on his standing-room-only lecture tours, and his expressive Yiddish is music to my ears, a reminder of the occasional pepper my parents and relatives would use to flavor their speech. Yiddish scholars Hillel Halkin, Dan Miron, David Roskies, and Ruth Wisse, as well Sholem’s granddaughter, writer Bel Kaufman, provide informative and spirited commentary that puts Sholem Aleichem’s legacy into a larger context without skirting the pleasures he offered his millions of fans. Reading aloud the new Sholem Aleichem story in the Jewish newspapers that were delivered on Friday became a Sabbath ritual in many, many Jewish homes. It’s a tradition Tevye might not have approved of, but one I would love to see resurrected, a mitzvah to the next generation.